by Sophia Ward Brewer for the Greater Grand Rapids Women’s History Council | Illustrations by Libby VanderPloeg
At the end of the nineteenth century, African American women found themselves outside the mainstream fight for suffrage and broader women’s rights. Immediately following the Civil War, the national women’s suffrage organization split for twenty years in a fight over whether to support suffrage for African American males only in the Fifteenth Amendment or whether to hold out for universal suffrage for all. Feelings were wounded, racist language flew, and it took a long time for the mostly white movement to heal. In the meantime, between emancipation and the end of the century, Grand Rapidian Mary Roberts Tate acclaimed African Americans for making “more progress than any other nation in the world” had managed in so a short period.
Until her death in 1914, this now virtually unknown African American reform advocate gave voice to African American women both locally and nationally, on stages and in newspapers. By 1894, when Mary Roberts Tate was 45, she and a few other African American women in Grand Rapids started the Married Ladies Nineteenth Century Club, a social and political group dedicated to the uplift of the race. This groundbreaking women’s club was formed two years before the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs organized, and fifteen years before the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
Mary Roberts Tate was a local beautician and business owner, who also served as organizer, vice-president, and principal lecturer of the Michigan Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs. In September of 1900, she led the state Federation in its petition to President McKinley for restitution to an African American widow after her husband had been killed by a mob when he was appointed a postmaster in South Carolina. Fearless, Tate used her voice to enlighten people about the plight and progress of African Americans and about women’s rights at a time when most black women were largely unseen and unheard in public life
In a speech captured by the Grand Rapids Herald in 1907, “North Unfair to the Negro,” Tate condemns the attitudes of white people who were kowtowing to the South during what we now call the Jim Crow era: “The north has grown silent and is holding hands off in matters pertaining to our welfare, and dislikes, or fear to take up our cause, no matter what injustices we suffer.” More locally, in 1906, Mary Roberts Tate had represented her club and community in a show of solidarity and respect for women’s suffrage movements, by speaking at a memorial tribute to Susan B. Anthony at the prestigious Ladies Literary Club.
Mary Roberts Tate and other African American women during this period demonstrated that they could shoulder the burdens of their race while they also carried the burdens of womanhood. As she travelled, spoke, and advocated for the rights of all, Tate seemed to understand the weight behind Sojourner Truth’s famous words, “Ain’t I a Woman?”
So, during 2020 and the centennial of the Nineteenth Amendment, remember women like Mary Roberts Tate who were counted on but often discounted during the struggle for the vote. Tate died in 1914 before universal suffrage was achieved.
To the Public Pulse, Grand Rapids Press, October 17, 1902
Editor: I have been a tax payer for the past 19 years, and I want to enlighten white citizens as to the colored tax payers of Grand Rapids. We have 200 families and 68 pay taxes on property worth over $100,000. I will say that our boys and girls are as wide awake and as enterprising as you will find anywhere, and the rule is that their morals are good. As to the new engine house, I think the good citizens of Grand Rapids would just as soon a black man should save their property and perhaps their families from fire as a white man. So give us the engine house. Mrs. M. R. Tate [excerpted]
The Greater Grand Rapids Women’s History Council